ST. LOUIS – Tim Lincecum took his spikes to the bullpen Sunday afternoon.
He was only the safety valve this time. But someday, he might become the fireman. And perhaps someday soon.
The Giants would turn Lincecum into a late-inning reliever “in a heartbeat,” according to one club source, if they had another starting pitcher in the system ready to take his place in the rotation.
That isn’t the case now – and probably won’t be anytime soon, unless the Giants get Ryan Vogelsong back at the end of July from a fractured pinkie and also acquire a starter on the trade market.
So Lincecum will keep taking the ball every fifth day and try to reestablish himself as he trods through Year 2 of maddening, inconsistent outings.
There is little doubt, though, that a second career awaits Lincecum as a reliever. It’s a role that many scouts envisioned before he threw his first professional pitch. It’s one of the reasons the Giants looked past his size and unorthodox delivery when they drafted him 10th overall. They figured he could be an impact performer in the late innings if he didn’t prove durable enough to throw 200 innings each year.
Lincecum certainly made an impact as a reliever last October, when he dominated in five postseason relief appearances (13 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, 17 strikeouts) to help the Giants win their second World Series title in three years.
Now the Giants and Lincecum are reaching the end of eight years of exclusive dating. He’ll be a free agent after this season. Starting pitchers generally get paid more on the open market, but there are bound to be teams that will pursue him as a reliever. And if Lincecum cannot reestablish his value as a starter (he has a 5.12 ERA in 11 starts after posting an NL-worst 5.18 ERA a year ago), he might even find that his most attractive deal comes from a team that wants to use him as a closer.
How would he feel about that?
“I’m always open. It’s just, right now I don’t want to be open to it,” said Lincecum, adding he is committed to remaining a starter for the rest of this season. “I’m sure if my career takes that turn, I’m definitely open to changes, especially if it’s beneficial to the team I’m playing for.”
He chose his words carefully: “the team I’m playing for.”
It’s impossible to know what uniform Lincecum will next year. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise if both he and the Giants seek a fresh start. He’s spoken so often of his past weighing on him, whether it’s the expectations that linger from his two Cy Young seasons or the comparisons to last year, when he became a liability every fifth day.
And given his struggles, the Giants wouldn’t face the PR nightmare that confronts so many teams when one of their most popular players heads to free agency. Lincecum’s performance would be all the Giants would need to explain to fans why they’d let him walk.
Is Lincecum thinking about all the uncertainty that will take place in just a few months?
“It’s not like I don’t think ahead,” he said. “I think ahead about a lot of things in my life. I just don’t think ahead in that way. … I’m more a here-and-now kind of guy. We’re in a fun division. It seems someone different is on top every year, and we’re right there.
“I’ll play this season to its end and try to see what happens.”
Lincecum was in the bullpen Sunday only because Chad Gaudin was making his first start since 2009, subbing in Vogelsong’s spot, and manager Bruce Bochy wanted to make sure the team was covered in case the right-hander got knocked out early.
Lincecum did so willingly, delivering Bochy the same reply that he gave the manager last October: If it helps the team, it’s fine by me.
He wants to keep starting. But he has thought about the advantages of pitching in relief.
“I don’t know when the time might be right, but I’ve closed in college and the Cape,” said Lincecum, who was a standout at the University of Washington. “Growing up, basically, I wasn’t a starter. I was a pitcher. I pitched whenever.
“Last year, you’re down there and you’re running on adrenaline. The situation is a little different getting the call in the major leagues, in the playoffs, than in a Cape League dugout. You take it for what it was – a great opportunity."
It was a learning opportunity, too.
“Out of the bullpen, your focus is different,” Lincecum said. “You’re not thinking about lasting. It’s, `Go until they tell you to stop.’ When you’re starting, when you see your pitch count go up in a bad inning, that can be at the forefront of your brain. You know it’s going to (limit how deep you can go). So I guess you could say it’s a lack of pressing, when you’re relieving.”
Giants left-hander Jeremy Affeldt started 18 games in 2003, his second big league season and was used in both roles until becoming a reliever full-time in 2007. He was plagued by some of the same issues that limit Lincecum now: High pitch counts, inefficiency, trying to set up hitters instead of being focused on recording outs.
“As a starter, you’re trying to get guys out but you’re also thinking about not showing a certain pitch in a certain count,” Affeldt said. “As a reliever, I’m throwing everything I have at you. So getting into patterns isn’t as dangerous as it is for a starter.”
Catcher Buster Posey said there was a definite difference in handling Lincecum during the playoffs as a reliever as opposed to a regular-season start.
“You might pitch a guy differently with nobody on base as a starter, because more than likely you’ll be facing that guy again, and it might be a more critical situation the next time,” Posey said. “As a reliever, you’re not worried about that.”
Patterns have been on Lincecum’s mind of late.
“I was thinking about it yesterday,” Lincecum said. “Without talking too much about it, yeah, I think I am falling into patterns in a sense. But then, if I’m hitting spots like I should, that’s not a question. I guess it’s the same in either role: Just trust my stuff and have confidence it’ll be enough.”
Pacing is another pitfall. When Affeldt was starting with Kansas City, he said he tried to hold back and dial back his velocity to conserve for the later innings. When that didn’t work, coaches advised him to just go all-out and see how far he could get. That didn’t work, either.
“Starting, man, it didn’t work for me,” Affeldt said. “I had good ones and bad ones. Maybe with more time I would have figured it out, like Cainer (Matt Cain) did. He was a high-pitch guy. I’d be five innings, 104 pitches and be out of the game. I had blisters that got in the way. So a lot went into it for me. Not every starting pitcher has that option. I did, fortunately, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here right now.
“Tim has that option. And he’s already succeeded as a starter. He’s done some amazing things. So he wouldn’t have that what-if. He’d just go on to a second career.”
And what might that career look like?
“Oh, Timmy has closer stuff,” Affeldt said. “He’s got movement all over the place. I think he should start as long as he can possibly start, but look at a (John) Smoltz. He had great stuff as a starter and he had great stuff as a closer. Timmy’s a lot like that.”
Although his ERA has been all over the board, Lincecum’s strikeout rate remains consistently high. He’s at 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings this season. It was 9.2 last year, then 9.1, 9.8, 10.4, 10.5 and 9.2 in the preceding seasons.
He could dominate with his fastball and split/change alone. Or go two-seamer and curve. Lincecum always has been more jazz improvisation than concerto on the mound, using what works on a specific day.
If he doesn’t have to worry about establishing more than one offspeed pitch, it stands to reason that he won’t throw as many balls, won’t run into as many hitter’s counts and it’ll be the guy in the box who feels on the defensive.
“That’s why you won’t see him just going to take a middle relief role,” Affeldt said. “He’ll be dominant like Smoltz.”
Said Posey, of catching Lincecum in the playoffs: “There’s a difference. You know you’re only facing a hitter one time. You can let it hang out, so to speak.”
At Busch Stadium, Lincecum’s hangout in the bullpen was a one-time thing. Although so many people appear ready to quit on him as a starter, that isn’t a bridge he’s ready to cross.
In his mind, the bullpen is a fork in the road. Not a dead end.
“(Relief) isn't something I'm thinking about now,” said Lincecum, who is in the final season of a two-year, $40.5 million contract. “I'm focused on what I'm doing now (as a starter). I think I’m repeating my mechanics more often (than last year), but not as often as I’d like.
“It’s a cliché, but every day is a chance to improve. People say it because it’s true.”